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Remembering drag racing legend Jim Kerr

By Dave Cook, 21 Jan 2021 Features

Remembering drag racing legend Jim Kerr

Jim Kerr lived an incredible life of customlines, top fuellers and restored Fords

SITTING under the stuffed head of a cape buffalo in a house full of the mementos of a life well lived, 80-year-old Jim Kerr regaled us with tales of hot rodding and drag racing exploits that began in the early 1960s. Now, a few months after Jim’s passing after a long battle with leukaemia, those stories paint a vivid picture of the formative years of the sport in Australia – from street-racing Customlines around the fringes of Sydney to near-200mph laps in a blown Hemi dragster.

This article was first published in Street Machine's 2020 Yearbook. Photos: SM Archives

Life for Jim had become quieter when we sat down with him back in 2018 to talk about those earlier times, but his advancing years saw no retreat into TV antiques shows and sleeping in comfy chairs. He was busy with a pair of restored ’34 Fords (a coupe and a roadster) and a Thunderbird, with a rare-model Mustang awaiting its time to be tweaked back into shape and a stack of replacement parts for sidevalve Fords that needed machining. Not to mention his engine-building work for fellow enthusiasts.

Jim Kerr

Jim’s early racing was done in his famed ‘The Jindivik’ Customline. The voluminous smoke isn’t from the tyres but from the exhaust, thanks to the too-thin oil that was favoured in those days 

Jim’s life as a petrolhead really began when he was 19 in 1960. He’d seen a ’48 Mercury in a car yard in the Sydney suburb of Petersham, but a mate beat him to buying it. In frustration, he bought a ’46 Chev instead. But when he drove it up Parramatta Road that night, the bearings quit, so he soon traded it in on a Ford Customline – and became a Cusso man for life.

It wasn’t long before he was hanging out at the now-legendary fast-food joint and hot-car mecca Beefies on Parramatta Road. “That’s where I met a lot of the people I’m still friends with now, people like Flemmo [John Fleming] and the Shifters Hot Rod Club,” Jim recalled. “That’s where drag racing in NSW started.”

Jim Kerr

Probably the most famous clutch explosion of 1965 was that suffered by Jim’s Cusso on the Castlereagh startline. Nobody in those days of poor traction and narrow tyres had seen a transmission failure like it. The shattered clutch plate was transformed into a mantel clock by Jim’s wife Jean – a watchmaker by trade. Main photo: Dennis Lyon

The Shifters was one of the first hot rod clubs in Sydney. “I came along a year after it was started,” Jim explained. “I went to Riverside Dragway in 1964 with Flemmo in the Customline. He’d been down in 1963 with his ’34 coupe, which makes him the longest-running drag racer in Australia. He’s still running now.”

Although he didn’t own any by the end of his life, Jim’s love affair with Customlines was a long and enduring one. “I had quite a few over the years, including a Mainline that I bought from Broadway Motors at Parramatta,” he said. “It was trouble-free until the first race meeting at Castlereagh in March 1965. There was a guy who came up from Melbourne and he blew a diff on the way up. I gave him my diff so he could race and I never saw him again. I had to get my car home from the race track without a diff in it.”

Jim Kerr

In goes the clutch and bang goes the crankshaft in Jim’s AA/Dragster. He tried converting the 354 to 392 cubes, but the slower revs and extra power overwhelmed the front-engined car

The best known of Jim’s Cussos, and the one that defined his early racing, was called ‘The Jindivik’ – named in honour of the Australian-designed guided missiles of the 1950s and 60s. Jim explained how he came to own it: “I was going to buy TV personality Brian Henderson’s ’62 Thunderbird and make a drag car out of it. Before I did, my mate Ron Rankin and I went up to a race meeting at Catalina [motor circuit at Katoomba] in January 1965, and they were advertising this Customline for sale. It was Tom Anderson’s race car, but he wanted to build an open-wheeler. He arranged the finance for me, because I had no money and he wanted £650. I resprayed it blue with a vacuum-cleaner spray gun.”

At the time Jim bought it, the car held the lap record for 4998cc cars at both Orange (Gnoo Blas circuit) and Warwick Farm (records that still stand because both tracks were closed shortly after) and the fastest speed over the flying eighth-mile down Bathurst’s Conrod Straight at 136mph.

Jim Kerr

The Jindivik was considered a pretty tough Cusso for its day, running a 305 Y-block with triple two-barrel carbs, a three-speed column shift and a 4.09 Mainline diff. It had four bars over the rear window to prevent the glass from popping out, and the steel wheel centres were welded all the way around so you didn’t lose a wheel going around the corners.

“I bought that Customline just to hang out at Beefies, because Castlereagh wasn’t going then,” Jim said. “In those days we’d go down to Beefies in my mate’s Tank Fairlane and if there was any racing on down at Heathcote we’d come back home, pick up The Jindivik and off we’d go for some serious competition. The Cusso had the legs on all of them.”

Jim Kerr

After the Castlereagh drag strip opened in March 1965, The Jindivik scored 18 straight class wins in AA/MS and A/MS between September ’65 and November 1966, with the best being – according to Jim’s meticulously written notebook of the day – an anomalously quick 14.38, when most times were in the 15- or 16-second zones.

The Cusso also had the honour of running at the first race meetings of Castlereagh, Surfers Paradise Raceway and Calder Park, along with the first Nationals at Riverside, Melbourne.

Jim Kerr

Jim raced the Hemi dragster until the early 80s. It was later restored back to its original Morrie Carlton guise by Ross Preen and has toured extensively as a cackle car, including to the USA

That first Castlereagh meeting was a troubled weekend for Jim. It was the first time he had tried to trailer a car, and the steering of his mate’s Tank Fairlane was all over the place because they didn’t have the balance right. When they arrived, Jim added benzene to the fuel, but so did crewman Ronnie, resulting in a mixture that was way too rich.

Then in May 1965, Jim scattered a clutch on the Castlereagh startline in one of the best-known transmission failures in the sport at that time. Jim told us the method for mitigating such problems was welding steel manhole covers onto the transmission tunnels, since scattershields were an unknown commodity in those days.

Jim Kerr

Jim and his crew prepare to A-bar the newly signwritten Cusso to the Castlereagh strip for the Dragfest meeting in April 1966. Photo: Dennis Lyon

Jim and The Jindivik fronted up to the first Nationals at Riverside In October ’65.

“In those days the eliminator rounds were run differently to today, and you ran everyone in the category until the final, and I beat everyone up to there. After I lost the final against Roger Abrahams’ Mustang, I was back in the pits and my crew guy says: ‘Look at this.’ They were lifting this huge toolbox out of the boot of the Mustang; it took two guys to lift it. It was there to put weight on the driver’s side of the car to get traction. My guy wanted me to protest, but I said no, so he told meeting director Max De Jersey. Max came over later and said Abrahams would get the Sedan Eliminator trophy but he offered me £20 to come back for a match race the next meeting. I towed down for it, but Abrahams never showed.”

Jim Kerr

Jim (far right) and his fellow interstate racers slept outside the gates of the new Surfers Paradise drag strip in April 1966 awaiting the chance to get inside and compete on the new surface. This was to be the track’s first event, just one of a handful of firsts that would be chalked up by The Jindivik. Photo: Dennis Lyon

By the beginning of 1967, The Jindivik was becoming a bit tired – with a lifetime of competition crammed into its 10 years of existence, the Cusso’s performance edge was slipping away. Jim decided to give racing away and became a tow truck driver for a time. “The Jindivik had had a hard life,” Jim said. “It had been a circuit racer and then done a lot of laps on the quarter-mile, almost all with solid rear suspension, so, sadly, we took it to Concord tip.”

However, a few of The Jindivik’s parts survived. In fact, the car’s shock absorbers are still doing laps today in Jim’s son John’s Mercury Comet.

Jim Kerr

Warren Armour grabs a clear lead in his Holden over the smoking fury of Jim’s Customline at the 1966 Nationals at Castlereagh

Jim ran his tow trucks out of the yard at the back of American Auto Parts in Homebush, where he spent a lot of time with racers Bruce Phillips and Joe Gatt, who worked in the same yard. That led to his next venture.

“Gordon Davidson had built this dragster for Benny Gatt, but he didn’t like it and his brother Joe took it over,” Jim recalled. “I bought a 351 Cleveland at Sydney Motor Auctions out of a brand new Falcon GTHO wreck for less than $100 on the Friday and took it over to Tony Andrew’s service station at Bexley, and he sold it for me the next day for $500. With $300 of that money, I bought the dragster off Joey in 1972. He’d called it ‘The Sundowner’, but I changed the name to ‘Vulture’, because I was a towie, and towies were supposed to be vultures.

Jim Kerr

In Jim’s later years, his ’34 coupe and roadster were regulars at vintage Ford gatherings around eastern Australia

“I had helped Joe buy the sidevalve motor from a guy in the Shifters, but he never did get it running properly, so I ended up buying it all from him. I didn’t like the idea of straddling the flathead diff in there, so I put in a 4.33 Oldsmobile unit behind an A-model gearbox with second and top gears. The fuel injection was built around a Scott manifold by Bruce Phillips at P&R Performance, using a flow pump from a heart-lung machine. As far as we know, it was, and possibly still is, the quickest naturally aspirated flathead in the country, and possibly the world.”

The little injected sidevalve-powered rail picked up a number of wins and final-round placings over the next two years, with a best of 11.02 before Jim decided to take things to the next level. He heard that fellow Sydney racer Morrie Carlton was selling his blown Hemi dragster, complete with trailer, for $3000. He jumped at it.

Jim Kerr

Jim took the unloved sidevalve-powered rail built for racer Joe Gatt and turned it into The Vulture, a regular winner in the handicap racing wars of the mid-1970s, running a best of 11.02sec in the newly handicapped Modified Eliminator class. The dragster was built along classical front-engined lines by Sydney builder Gordon Davidson and still occasionally makes an appearance in Victoria

In October 1975, Jim’s first meeting in the 354-cube Hemi rail saw him run 8.93@170mph, and the car eventually became the quickest of Jim’s career, going 7.99@198mph at Surfers before the crank finally gave out in July 1976. That gave him the opportunity to try 392 cubes.

“The trouble was that the 392 was too powerful for that little car,” Jim said. “The clutch didn’t lock up until near the traps. When I took it easy, the car went quicker than when I pushed it hard. The 354 revved its heart out and the 392 just had too much bottom-end power and didn’t rev as hard.”

Jim Kerr

Jim, wife Jean and crew member Tony Andrew with their new sidevalve-powered rail in 1974

The 392 ran a best of 8.1 seconds, and Jim then started building a rear-engined car to chase a 200mph terminal speed. But in 1981 he suffered a nasty heart attack and was advised to give racing a break. Shortly afterwards, Castlereagh closed, so racing came to an end for Jim and wife Jean.

Besides his own cars, Jim also served as driver for some other very significant vehicles, including John Fleming’s ‘Declared Black’ Junior Fueller and Bob Honeybrook’s 426 Hemi-powered Top Fueller.

Jim Kerr

Jim with an unmachined casting for his sidevalve Ford heads, which have been sold to enthusiasts all over the world

Jim always had a hankering for ’34 Fords. He’d bought a ’34 rod from John Fleming in 1966; it sat in the garage for years until he sold it in the late 70s. “I’ve kicked myself ever since,” he said. But in the mid-1980s he went to an auction to buy a station wagon and came home with a ’34 coupe that had been owned by the auctioneer. And in ’85, he bought a ’34 roadster from Rod Hadfield. Both of them were restored to original trim and Jim took up the historic Ford circuit, winning concours events aplenty.

As a result of his ’34 obsession, Jim began manufacturing his own heads, water pumps and manifolds, as the original castings were full of lead and couldn’t be welded. These became in great demand among early-Ford fans, and Jim sold plenty to other parts of the world. He had also become something of an authority on sidevalve motors, and built quite a few for the enthusiast crowd.

Jim Kerr

Jim took his Jindivik Cusso south for the first Nationals in October 1965, making it to the final of Sedan Eliminator, where he lost to Roger Abrahams’ Mustang. Jim returned to Melbourne for a match race the following month, but Abrahams didn’t show. Photo: Dennis Lyon

One of Jim’s proudest moments in recent years was being given an Australian Nostalgia Fuel Association Pioneer Award in 2016 and having his name added to the Wall of Fame at Sydney Dragway.

Ford Thunderbird

Jim’s Thunderbird is just one of the very collectable vehicles in the Kerr collection

Jim passed away on 12 September 2020. His skills with sidevalve engines have been recognised by enthusiasts worldwide, and his contribution to Australian drag racing’s early days was vital.

Jim Kerr

GUIDED MISSILE

LIKE any good racer, Jim was forever fiddling with his Jindivik Customline, and while it was pretty hot when he got it, it certainly got hotter as he perfected things.

Buried in one of his notebooks is a double-page spread of specs for the car from some now-unknown time (pictured right). It shows that The Jindivik was right at the cutting edge for its day, really only limited by the poor traction of the tracks in 1965-66 and the car’s hefty weight.

notepad

Some of the mods were inventive, to say the least. Jim put lengths of threaded 2in bar between the chassis and the diff, and by adjusting the nuts, he could vary the pressure on either side of the car at the back.

The exhaust had two Sonic extractors on the outside of the chassis and two on the inside on either side. To open them for racing, Jim cut two holes in them and added removable brackets held with clamps. His wife Jean had to get underneath to remove them, as she was the only one small enough to fit!